Selected Criticism

James, William (1842–1910)
Tanner, James T.F.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

It is certain that William James, the American philosopher-psychologist and brother of Henry James, read and appreciated the works of Walt Whitman and that he interpreted them with remarkable critical acumen, for he refers to and quotes Whitman in "Is Life Worth Living?," "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings," The Sentiment of Rationality (1905), The Will to Believe (1897), Human Immortality (1898), Pragmatism (1907), and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Furthermore, it is known that James reacted strongly against the opinion of George Santayana (1863–1952), whose book Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), discussed Whitman's "barbarism." In general, Whitman symbolized for James the emancipated and sympathetically tolerant human figure.

James owed much of his knowledge of Whitman's life and works to Richard Maurice Bucke, the Canadian psychiatrist and personal friend of Whitman whose book Cosmic Consciousness, published in 1901, just a year before James's own Varieties of Religious Experience, furnished much valuable information for the latter book. In his various and random comments on Whitman, James quotes Specimen Days, "Song of Myself," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and "To You [Whoever you are...]" (a poem he particularly admired). Gay Wilson Allen suggests that Whitman, in "By Blue Ontario's Shore," curiously anticipates William James in his Pluralistic Universe (1919).


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

____. William James: A Biography. New York: Viking, 1967.

Bucke, Richard Maurice, ed. Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Philadelphia: Innes, 1901.

James, William. Pragmatism and Other Essays. 1907. New York: Washington Square, 1963.

____. Talks to Teachers on Psychology. New York: Holt, 1899.

____. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. New York: New American Library, 1958.

____. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, and Human Immortality. New York: Dover, 1956.

Matthiessen, F.O. The James Family: A Group Biography. 3rd ed. New York: Knopf, 1961.

Perry, Ralph Barton. The Thought and Character of William James. 2 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935.

Tanner, James T.F. "Walt Whitman and William James." Calamus: Walt Whitman Quarterly International 2 (1970): 6–23.


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